If anything has surprised me about the steampunk movement, it is its longevity. At first it seemed like a transitory fad, more about the fun of wearing “high tech” period costumes to conventions than the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s true, but the literary movement is going strong as well. This is one of the reasons I am currently writing in this genre- my own interest, coupled with its current popularity.
My first exposure to the genre was The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling. This sci-fi alternative history about the rise of mechanical computers was published before the “steampunk” term became popular. Alternate history, and the steam era were frequent themes in science fiction (such as Michael Moorcocks’ Warlord of the Air) but only recently did it become a true sub-genre. Since then we’ve seen talented young writers such as Cherie Priest and Scott Westerfield emerge to capitalize on this trend.
Conventionally, steampunk focuses on the Victorian era, which coincides roughly with the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, in particular, the latter years of the 19th Century. In America, this was known as the Gilded Age. Then, steam power dominated the world. It was also a time of great optimism about humanity’s future and the advancement of technology. This is when writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells invented the science fiction genre – though admittedly not all their works were optimistic.
I’ve heard it said that nostalgia for the Victorian era is strong nowadays because in those times, the future looked bright, in contrast to today’s bleak economic and political outlook. Even the rigidity of western society in those bygone times seems refreshing compared to our modern decadence.
Still, there are those of us who can’t quite leave the Gilded Age as it was. This is where the “punk” element comes in. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi writer K.W. Jeter coined the term for the sub-genre containing his own works. The term was originally a pun on the term “cyberpunk,” a popular sci-fi subgenre of the 1980’s, which was in turn associated with the appropriately named “cypher-punk” political movement. At that time “punk” signified anarchy and/or decadence. Eventually the suffix the “punk” came to signify “alternate,” such as the modified histories of steampunk and other new genres such as “dieselpunk.”
Though I’ve always been fascinated by history and period novels, alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove, are even more fun. This kind of writing provided the inspirations for my upcoming novel Fidelio’s Automata. What would have happened if McKinley had not died from the shooting in Buffalo, and Teddy Roosevelt had not become president? Because I grew up in North Dakota, TR (who lived there for a time) was part of the local mythology, and it would be fun to change his life story. Other fascinating characters from that time and place were the Marquis de Mores, an eccentric French nobleman and entrepreneur, and his “liberated” American wife, Medora. What if their business had not failed? The Marquis would not have returned to France, gotten involved in extremist politics, and died as the result of a political plot in North Africa. In Fidelio, I can change these events and speculate on what might have been.